As the first wave tided over the world, employers scurried to secure the well-being of their workforce, and health quickly became the cynosure of every discussion. That said, well-being had long been on the organisational agenda; COVID-19 only made its relevance abundantly clear. Organisations were quick to move their workforce into remote arrangements, implement new policies in medical benefits and leave, and action strict contact tracing for onsite workers. Mental health found new relevance in public discourse amidst extended periods of social isolation and heightened anxieties. Some organisations went beyond the standard Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) to extend holistic support systems to their employees.
While organisations were generally able to ensure that their employees’ needs for safety and health security were met, it would be fair to say that most came from a “fight” response to the pandemic, as opposed to a well-thought-out, long-term strategy. With 15 months since the first COVID-19 wave, both employers and employees are beginning to take notice of their evolving needs amidst a completely changed world—essentially, calling for sustainable and sophisticated designs in workforce strategy.
Tracing the pattern in crisis-induced workforce transformation
Historically, every major economic or health-related downturn has resulted in momentous and fundamental shifts in the way people work. The Great Depression of the 1930s strengthened unionisation and labour welfare, much like COVID-19 refocussed the limelight on preserving health. Uncertainty too impels employees to re-examine the “safety net” that their employers provide, whose relevance is often found in the circumstance they are dealing with. In light of COVID-19, health and well-being-linked benefits have become a significant point of negotiation. Organisations that are able to communicate their dedication towards building this “safety net” tend to emerge stronger. A leading multinational sports and footwear manufacturer, for instance, recently gave its corporate office headquarters a week off to “power down” and destress amidst increasing levels of burnout in the workforce. While this is one in a limited list of employers to announce empathetic breaks from the pandemic-enforced routine, changes such as these are usually gradual to take shape.
Businesses today operate amidst expectations that their employees and stakeholders derive value and a clear impact at every level. It would be fair to say that employee well-being as an afterthought in work transformation would no longer yield expected outcomes, especially after the COVID-19 crisis. But the onus of ushering in this change cannot be left on HR alone. It should be imbibed in the culture and echoed by leaders at every level and for every function of the organisation.
Looking beyond finding a balance
Long-term shifts in practices and designs take effect in layers as the true impact of the crisis begins to unravel. With COVID-19 too, the immediate impact may just appear to be higher regard for remote work. However, the gradual shifts in behaviour is already altering HR practices in the near term and for the future. Over the last year, a clear definition of well-being at work emerged. Beyond balancing the two, it is more about successfully integrating the two silos. The challenge, therefore, that lies ahead in workforce strategy, is for organisations to weave employee well-being into the work they do, across levels. In doing so, the business is no longer driven by just performance but also sheer human potential.
If anything, COVID-19 has highlighted why worker well-being and work transformation should be threaded together as a whole. However, the relevance of connecting the two is yet to dawn in its entirety.
Setting the trend with tech
The role of tech is also significant in this aspect. It goes without saying that the world revolves around technology today. What used to be humans and machines previously is now “humans with machines”. With technology embedded in every aspect of our lives and the work we do, it has the potential to ensure work strategy incorporates and complements employee well-being. In the early days since the lockdown, several organisations introduced rewards-based, well-being campaigns. For instance, fitness campaigns where employees were asked to walk a pre-decided number of steps per day, tracked by wearable tech. Based on the count, employees could win merchandise, vouchers, and other rewards. While initial enthusiasm was high, the participation dwindled off quickly after the kick-off. This can be alluded to the single focus of these programmes. Differing schedules, work pressure, and personal commitments may hinder active and continued participation, as intended. The need, therefore, is for a holistic programme that is in-built within the work we do. Solutions that promote measurable insights on well-being and healthy behaviour, driven by artificial intelligence capabilities, could be seamlessly integrated into the collaboration tools we use every day. An important stakeholder in this regard would be tech leaders at organisations, who are well poised to support HR in ensuring sustainable workforce strategies, rooted in technological intelligence. Technology leaders can create and design frameworks with employee well-being at their core.
“Holistic” is key
While organisational EAPs continue to offer solutions tailored to the well-being needs of this time, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Each of us will emerge from this crisis with our own set of experiences and needs. While for some, economic benefits will probably take a backseat to health care, others may still be driven by the same parameters as before the pandemic. That said, for any workforce design to be successful and sustainable, the practice must be developed and implemented gradually. As the true impact of the pandemic begins to unravel on employee psyche, and the work we do undergoes considerable evolution, how organisations uphold their employees’ health and well-being must also be developed in parallel. In the current remote work scenario, the demarcations between work and home have continued to blur over the past year; work-life balance is no longer the aspirational outcome.
As organisations embark on the journey towards integrated well-being at work, they would have to keep in mind the environments in which employees interact. In a multicultural and hyperconnected world, work often goes beyond geographical and cultural dimensions. By integrating the changes in cultural, relational, operational, physical, and virtual environments, employers can foster a sense of well-being into its ethos, which would then snowball into a powerful and more sustainable momentum. Only those organisations that design well-being into work at every level, including individual, team, and organisational, will go on to have sustainable futures, powered by a workforce that feels their best and hence, performs their best.